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How the return of City vs Country can revitalise league in Australia

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25th July, 2019
23

Rugby league is facing the content conundrum.

There is a scene in Moby Dick when Captain Ahab is showing a chart to Ishmael that follows the migration of all the whales around the world. Ishmael becomes elated when he realises the bounty that awaits, but that quickly turns to despondency when he realises that Ahab’s obsession with chasing Moby Dick will steer them anywhere except the lucrative sperm whale hunting grounds.

Following the commentary around this year’s State of Origin, I sometimes felt like the despondent Ishmael.

Rugby league has one of the biggest sporting events in the country and we seem to do everything but embrace it. We are so intent in finding fault with every facet of Origin that we forget to enjoy it for what it is – a world-class rivalry and the best standard of rugby league on the planet.

Whilst some of the criticisms reek of the negativity that swarms over our game like a hangover that pushes well into the afternoon, the main bone of contention about State of Origin is that it devalues the NRL competition. That was evident during the State of Origin period, but this problem will not go away while the competition and State of Origin run concurrently.

The idea of pausing the NRL competition over the State of Origin period does have some appeal for many reasons.

As well as maintaining the integrity of each NRL match, pausing the NRL competition gives State of Origin the space and focus it rightly deserves.

NSW Blues

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

The thought of one month of interrupted Origin talk, of legitimate squad management, selection challenges and all the gripping stories that go along with the concept is an appealing scenario, especially if there is no competition from a depleted NRL at the same time.

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But as big a spectacle as Origin is, if the competition was to stop for some kind of representative window, it would need the broadcasters on board.

Sometimes the broadcasters are seen as the enemy during State of Origin. But the truth is, their investment and marketing have helped make Origin the huge spectacle that it is.

From a viewership perspective men’s State of Origin seems to work best on a Wednesday night, and for the women’s game it works best on a Friday played at a venue that is convenient to either the Sydney or Brisbane CBD.

The Pacific Tests were a great spectacle – particularly the rivalry and passion between Tonga and the Kiwis. Fiji, Tonga, Samoa and Lebanon all brought passion, skill and flair to the recent representative in the men’s and women’s fixtures.

Yet even with all this action it still was only a handful of matches, so it doesn’t quite answer the content conundrum.

A few weeks ago – while being two schooners down in a regional NSW pub watching two depleted NRL teams run around – I began reminiscing about the now extinct City versus Country fixture.

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The event was cut from a very crowded rugby league calendar for a number of reasons – predominantly that clubs derided the game and withdrew players for tenuous reasons and its credibility as an Origin selection trial was constantly being questioned.

But if the game ever does have a dedicated representative round, the NSWRL could change its thinking on the game and make it part of the Origin narrative. With no players representing their clubs during this time the teams could be comprising players not picked for the Blues – players desperate for selection and competing for spots during the Origin series.

On the back of a trusty beer coaster with a Keno pencil I laboured over two fairly handy teams.

If the match was played the weekend after Game 1, then Mitchell Pearce and James Maloney could have gone head to head, along with match ups like Jordan McLean versus Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Ryan Matterson against Isaah Yeo.

If the game was played later in the series names like Latrell Mitchell, Josh Morris and Cody Walker would have had a chance to prove to Brad Fittler that perhaps he shouldn’t have dropped them. It all makes for fascinating conjecture that perfectly complements the New South Wales State of Origin narrative.

To add to that, it could be a week long festival of footy in a regional area with the crescendo being a City versus Country game filled with NRL talent fighting for their State of Origin lives.

This is the sort of match up that the fans and broadcasters could get excited about. Yet perhaps the most exciting element of a game like this is where it could lead if Queensland had a similar variation – either City versus Country or Residents versus Exiles.

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David Fifita of the Maroons runs the ball

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Perhaps then the representative window could be capped off with an Australia A or Emus side being picked with eligible non State of Origin players from all states across Australia to play a Pacific All Stars or perhaps a British Residence side.

With more and more British players gracing our shores – international superstars like John Bateman, Ryan Hall and Callum Watkins just to name a few – this could be a great precursor to a Great British Lions tour or World Cup and it keeps discussion about the Kangaroos in the Aussie sporting landscape.

Whilst I concede that it would be a huge ask to get the clubs on board with such an idea, it is not impossible. If in the future such representative fixtures as these and the Pacific Tests were part of a lucrative broadcast deal that benefited clubs financially, they could be persuaded to be on board.

Because like Ahab failed to realise there is a whole world of riches out there, we just need to let go of our singular focus and go after it.